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Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as GOP Working on School Construction Bill

GOP Working on School Construction Bill

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Republican leaders on the House education committee are working on a bill to support school construction and renovation, reversing course on an issue that has been a mainstay of the Democratic agenda.

Although stressing that details of the plan are subject to change, Becky Campoverde, a spokeswoman for committee Republicans, said the legislation likely would be introduced this month. "There is a growing sense that we probably are going to have to do something in this area," she said.

As currently conceived, she said, the bill would provide about $1.5 billion in federal money per year for a range of renovation and repair projects for public schools. Uses for the aid would include efforts to ensure compliance with fire and safety codes, remove asbestos, and meet such "unfunded" federal mandates as modifying facilities to accommodate students with disabilities.

For charter schools, the money could also be used more broadly to buy or build facilities, as well as help with other start-up costs. Finding suitable space has been one of the biggest challenges facing the publicly funded but largely independent schools.

Rep. Bill Goodling

Among the House Republicans who have worked on the plan and are expected to co-sponsor it are Reps. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee; Johnny Isakson of Georgia; and Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California, both subcommittee chairmen on the committee.

Political Pressure

President Clinton has long made federal aid for school construction and renovation a top priority of his education agenda, and he has pounded away at Republicans on the issue. Rep. Goodling and many other Republicans have criticized those proposals, saying that school construction is a local responsibility and that the federal government should not get involved.

But it appears that political pressure not just from Democrats, but also from a growing number of Republican moderates, has led some GOP leaders to reconsider their position. Such pressure comes against the backdrop of an election year in which Republicans are trying to keep or expand a narrow House majority, and hope to reclaim the White House.

Earlier this year, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., and a handful of other party moderates signaled that they would join Democrats in backing legislation, similar to a plan put forward by Mr. Clinton, that would subsidize roughly $25 billion in bonds for school construction through tax credits. In fact, their support led the GOP leadership to cancel a House floor debate on a bill to provide other tax incentives in education, for fear that a school construction amendment would win enough votes to pass.

Bruce Hunter, the senior lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, credits the moderates' recent move with helping to spark the current plan.

"Tip your hat to Nancy Johnson," he said. "She has proved to the [GOP] leadership that this is an important idea among a significant portion of the majority." He added, "This gives [Republicans] something to vote for, and to go home and say they're for this."

Moreover, the emerging GOP proposal appears to be more comparable in structure to a separate plan the president put forward in his budget request for fiscal 2001 that would provide $1.3 billion in Department of Education money for school renovation. The Clinton plan would include $1.1 billion to subsidize an estimated $6.5 billion in seven-year, no-interest loans; the rest would be grants to high-need districts for renovations.

Under the Republican plan, the money would be sent to states, which would then distribute the aid to school districts or provide them with loan guarantees, Ms. Campoverde said.

"We don't want to create a whole new, huge federal bureaucracy," she said.

Backers of the plan stressed last week that the legislation was not yet in its final form.

Senate Paves Way

Ms. Campoverde said recent action in the Senate Appropriations Committee helped spur the plan. Last month, that committee approved a spending bill for the Education Department that included $1.3 billion that could be used for school renovation costs, though the legislation said the money could also be used for other education expenses.

Scott Fleming, the Education Department's assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs, called it "good news" that Republicans on the education committee appeared to be supporting school construction.

"It's taken a while, but ... it is encouraging that they recognize there is an appropriate federal role," he said. However, he noted that House Republicans had so far set aside no money for school construction; the education spending bill recently approved on a party-line vote by the House Appropriations Committee contains no such funding.

Dan Maffei, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, who have backed the larger school-construction-bond program, added, "It's a great start, but [$1.5 billion] barely scratches the surface of the school construction problem."

It remains unclear how many Republicans actually would back the bill. A spokesman for Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, said the speaker would reserve judgment on such a plan. And the plan has not won over all the Republican conservatives on the education committee.

"For Republicans to propose a dramatic new expansion of the Department of Education confuses our message of local control, local autonomy," Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo, said last week. "Inventing a scheme to commingle federal funds with state and local funds is a guaranteed way to see more dollars wasted than spent on bricks and mortar."

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Pages 23,26

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